As promised, I'm back, on a bright sunny day. In fact, it's a bright sunny day in Paris, which makes me especially happy. Vachement bien! [If you, like me, are not very literate in Francais – actually I'm completely illiterate – this means ‘bovine-ly good.’ I hope that helps.]

If you are just joining us, we were talking about graduate students in the biomedical sciences, and my concern that many students these days seem to have lost all hope. It isn't that they don't think they will graduate (most know that they will, but let's talk about that another time), but that they don't see their careers going anywhere. They are out in the storm, and it's raining sideways.

A big part of this, I think, is a role model problem. Science is a frustrating enterprise for many reasons (something we have talked about, and I'm sure we'll talk about it again). But these days it seems to be more frustrating than ever. Our knowledge is growing at an exponential rate, as is our technical ability to acquire more knowledge, but so is the cost of applying these emerging technologies. What is not increasing exponentially, or really, at all, are the available funds to actually pay for any of this. As a consequence, some of us (we academic faculty) may not only feel that we are being left behind, but in many cases I am afraid that it is true. We are experiencing a gulf between those who have ready access to new technical approaches, and those who do not, and it feels as though it is widening. And without access to these technologies, our grant applications grow ever less competitive, driving us further from bridging this gulf. It isn't fair, it isn't right, but it is what it is. If, that is, it really is what it seems to be. (Stick with me on this one, before you flame me like a Sith Lord with a double-ended light saber. Oh yes, there's a Star Wars theme, too.) And our frustration inevitably finds its way to our trainees, who channel our chagrin into their own hopelessness. If their Obi-wan Kenobes despair, what hope does a young Skywalker have?

If you are a student, and what I'm saying sounds familiar (about your mentors, not the original Star Wars – not the Jar-Jar Binks one, I mean the real first one, but I digress), a quick word of advice: don't be whiny Luke, who thinks just getting his derriere off Tatooine will assure his bright future, but perhaps be the self-sufficient, confident Jyn Erso who finds her way to steadfastly scavenge whatever she needs to attain success (okay, bad analogy, since she dies, albeit heroically, in the end, but I'm trying to work with the Star Wars thing here). The point is, rather than succumbing to the gloom you may be feeling from your mentors, use everything around you to develop and achieve your goals (including reading everything you can, inside and outside your chosen field, and actually critically learning what you read). It can be done.

But most of all I'm talking to the Anakin Skywalkers, those faculty mentors whose glowing promise and enthusiasm is being crushed, pushing them ineluctably towards the Dark Side. You are raining sideways on your trainees' dreams. Stop it, please. You may not realize it, but even if you are not stating your frustrations outright, your trainees inevitably pick up on your bleak psyche. It's inevitable; at some level they want to be you (which is why they are working in your lab), and if you are despairing of a system that is broken and may never be repaired, they will be too. I know. I've had lunch with them, and it's how they tell me they feel. Sure, they may have picked this up from someone else, but you're the most likely source.

“But Mole,” you say, “how the frick am I supposed to be supportive and positive when the system is broken and shows no sign of ever being repaired?” Didn't I just say this? And you go on, “I can't get grants unless I use technology I can't afford, since I don't have the grants I'd need to pay for them. And you want me to encourage students to get into this Pit of Despair?” Calm down. First of all, wrong reference; we're using Star Wars, not Princess Bride in this one. I know that there is a deep disturbance in the Force, but let's talk about that. Let's try to find a bit of new hope. No, I'm not going to solve all your problems – even the Mole can't do that. At least not today. And before you get out the Sith Lord flame-thrower to burn away our little patch of sunlight, maybe we can work together to make things better. I can't help it, I'm an optimist. (Then again, while an optimist proclaims that this is the best of all possible worlds, the pessimist fears that this is true. I wish I'd said that, but it was James Branch Cabell. Who never saw Star Wars. Even the very first one.)

First, let's examine the idea that it is access to technology that limits our ability to promote our research programs through funding. While it is true that an exciting new technique can propel a grant application to ultimate reward, this is neither guaranteed nor is it necessary. In the US there is a section of the grant called ‘Innovation’ that is a component of the final score. It is often misunderstood to mean ‘spiffy new technical approach,’ but this is incorrect. What this is supposed to mean is that the project you wish to propose is different from what everyone else is doing (or has already done). I'm sure that all grants in any funding system must be innovative in this regard if they are to be successful. (Yes, it is important to make it clear in your applications that this is how ‘innovation’ should be interpreted; and yes, reviewers do get this wrong. Don't get me started on the review process. Instead, go have a look at what I've written about this before.) And even if you have access to a spiffy new technical approach, it really is the question that has to drive the research in most cases (unless you are proposing to develop the spiffy new approach, but that's different – if you're involved in assay development in an engineering department, I want to meet you, but most likely, you're not reading this. But if you are, call me, okay?).

Let's say you have a great idea, and you know how to pursue it but do not have access to the cutting-edge technology that you would need to explore it. You have a couple of options: (1) talk to someone who does have access to it, and convince them that your idea is so good that they will want to help you. This works, and I know this from personal experience – it can take time (even a long time) to find the right person, but if the idea really is good, eventually the collaboration can happen. This often takes hard work, diligence and perseverance, and yeh, a really good idea. But it can happen. (By the way, it really helps if you have a habit of actually publishing your findings; collaborators are much more likely to work with you if they are confident that it will end up as a nice paper that they don't have to beg you to get around to writing.) (2) Find another way to explore your idea. Often, with some thought and an understanding of techniques and alternative methods, a problem can be addressed without needing the most cutting-edge technologies. Sure, it can be harder, but who said that science isn't hard (not me!). And if your new approach seems to work, it really helps with option #1. (3) (Not ‘a couple of options’, three really.) Wait. Really great ideas will keep (not always, but often). Today's cutting-edge technology is tomorrow's standard. Many methods in modern biomedical research have started to follow Moore's Law; every three years they become twice as fast and half as expensive. Remember, cool lightsabers are “an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.” If you are genuinely worried that lots of others with more resources than you will do it, maybe the idea is not so novel after all. Which leads to (4) (Okay, four options). Think of a new idea (see #3). (5) There is no #5. (At least, I haven't thought of one.) Technology is not going to resolve the situation that is drawing you towards the Dark Side.

Secondly, there may be other reasons why your research program is depressing you. It is easy to blame our frustrations on irascible reviewers and awkward editors, clueless grant reviewers, antiquated equipment and recalcitrant trainees, but if you are doing that, you are the poor carpenter who blames his tools, and a bad comic who blames his audience (not to mention, a bit of a duck for blaming your trainees. I didn't write ‘duck,’ but my autocorrect changed it.) Are you up to date in your reading and understanding of your field? Of course you are (see, I heard you), but really, this is what I mean: every field of research extends far beyond the limits of what we see as ‘our field.’ Are you reading and absorbing other areas of research that might impact on what you're studying? Here's the thing. When we start out, we (hopefully) learn as much as we can about lots of things, but over time, we restrict that learning to focus on deepening that knowledge about one thing. We feel we have to (and probably, we're right). Some people only go into other areas in their reading when they are curious about a ‘hit’ in their screen (see technology, above). But some people (and sometimes, this is me) get their ‘hits’ from reading outside our fields and thinking, ‘what if this answers my question?’. Sure, I'm wrong a lot, but these ‘hits’ can be just as useful as the ones that come from other approaches, and actually, they are a lot more fun when they're right (which does happen now and then.) If you don't have access to cutting-edge tech, I just bet you have access to a lot of literature. Use it. (If you don't have access to literature, I'm not sure how you are reading this, but you can still get a hold of a lot of information by emailing authors who just love to send you their papers.) By the way, scanning literature searches is not the same thing as reading (and learning) the literature. And if you get back into the habit of educating yourself about things you don't know, you might discover (or re-discover?) the joy of what we do.

You are a role model. If you are not using every tool available to you, then yes, you will likely be seduced by the Dark Side. Fight it. I know that this will not solve your problems overnight, and for at least some of you in the blogiverse, your first impulse will be to angrily dismiss these harmless musings. That's okay, but hey, I'm just a little insectivore – there are better targets for your invective than moi.

But in the meantime, please do what you can to show your trainees that science is not about what you don't have; it's about the utterly amazing things you can do with what you do have. And let the Force be with you.